Thursday, May 3, 2012

Into Africa, Part 2: Why Not to Travel with a Food Writer
What’s cooking? Cape Grace Salmon Salad

I don’t know what I expected in terms of South African cuisine. What I found was that the polyglot culture (11 national languages!) of the country makes it a hotbed of great eating. I set out to be brave and try lots of local dishes, but it turned out that the bravery part wasn’t really necessary, so my experiments were mostly just fun.

In Cape Town, where fresh fish is the dominant delicacy, most restaurants simply offer what they call Line Fish, which is pretty much the whitefish of the day. Two I know we had were kingklip and snoek, both so fresh you could practically feel the ocean spray.

Breakfast and lunch were at our home base in Cape Town, the elegant Cape Grace Hotel (pictured above, with the magnificent Table Mountain in the background). What a place. Coffee delivered five minutes after your wake-up call. Exquisite turndown service complete with slippers and a little mat for your feet – and chocolates, of course. I felt so spoiled! The breakfast buffet included raw oysters, mini quiches, scones, meats and cheeses – and that was just the cold stuff. My favorite was the passion fruit, which I’d never had. Its flavor is similar to kiwi, but with a softer, juicier texture, and crunchy seeds in the center. They’re the size of a small plum and a little weird looking on the inside, but you just have to get past that. Cut them in half and serve them plain. I had to hold back my desire to take the whole bowl of them to our table.

Ryan's Kitchen, where we ate outside.

We spent three days in the wine country east of Cape Town – Franschoek and Stellenbosch – which has much the same feel as Napa Valley. At a remarkable restaurant called Ryan’s Kitchen, I feasted on a gemsbok (pronounced “hemsbok” with a gutteral “h”) steak, the meat from a stunning (and plentiful) type of antelope. It’s leaner than beef and tastes much like venison, though not as gamey. Ryan is a fan of modernist cuisine, so my gemsbok was cooked sous vide, a technique that involves vacuum-sealing the meat in a plastic bag, and cooking it oh-so slowly in a water bath. The result is food that’s evenly done throughout, tender and moist, yet without a crust. So it’s different, but very flavorful.

The menu is driven by local and indigenous ingredients, but Ryan’s artistic and inventive presentations (see the photo above of my tuna appetizer) are so bright and colorful, they look like they were developed at Pixar rather than a kitchen. No basket of bread for Ryan while you wait for your appetizers. Instead, the amuse bouche (chef’s appetizer) platter arrives as a handful of tastes displayed on a tiny wooden bench: a small dish of a spicy tomato foam topped with a crisp basil leaf, a cheese and potato puff on tomato cream, and two items in test tubes – a slim tube of butternut and ginger soup, and a larger one of frozen basil juice (cold and salty), smoking with a bit of dry ice. Fun and delicious.

My dessert was a light and tangy Nectarine and Madagascan Vanilla Soufflé, served with lavender ice cream. The lavender flavor was so smooth and subtle, I may have to try duplicating it this summer. Of course, that’s about all I could hope to duplicate from Ryan’s Kitchen – which should maybe be renamed Ryan’s Laboratory. Spooms and foams and gels abound, which adds a real sparkle to the meal.

Not surprisingly, I pestered servers and chefs just about everywhere we went, to tell me what was in various dishes and how they were prepared. One dish our whole group liked was a delicious salmon salad from the Cape Grace.

Kitchen Goddess note: At the hotel, they make this salad with cured salmon, but curing salmon was just a little more work than I was really interested in, so I went to Whole Foods, where I picked out a piece of salmon that was marinated in tequila and lime and had them steam it. Waaay easier, and very tasty. You could try this recipe with any cooked salmon – baked, broiled, poached, or steamed. You just want to keep the flavor of the salmon simple.

Cape Grace Salmon Salad (serves 4 as a first course)

½ pound salmon, cooked
1 small fennel bulb, sliced thinly (I highly recommend a mandolin, as you can get really nice, thin slices quickly)
1 grapefruit, peeled and sectioned
1 5-ounce package of baby arugula

For the dressing:
1 6-ounce container of plain yogurt (I prefer Fage, and you can go for the low-fat or no-fat yogurt if you like)
1 tablespoon agave syrup, or more to taste

Spread a handful of the baby arugula on a plate, topped with a sprinkling of the fennel slices. Arrange 4 whole grapefruit segments on top and pile the salmon in the center. Stir together well the yogurt and agave syrup, and drizzle on top. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Kitchen Goddess note: You can substitute honey for the agave syrup, but the agave is not as sweet or as thick as honey, so I’d recommend adding a small amount (½ teaspoon) of lemon juice with the honey.

1 comment:

  1. My cousin who lived in Australia brought back passion fruit purée which she puts on her pavlova. So delicious but I have never found it in New Jersey. Might have to search online as your story has rekindled my taste buds' memory for passion fruit.